David Letzler. The Cruft of Fiction: Mega-Novels and the Science of Paying Attention

David Letzler. The Cruft of Fiction: Mega-Novels and the Science of Paying Attention. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. 318 p. ISBN 978-0-8032-9962-7. $US60.00.

In this thought-provoking, well-written study, David Letzler combines computer science and information theory with genre criticism to propose an innovative way of theorizing reader response to the excesses often found in postmodern and some modern mega-novels. These are “the extremely literate, erudite tomes around which one must plan one’s life for a month” (1) by such authors as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, as well as James Joyce. Acknowledging that reactions to these novels range from passionate admiration to dismissive scorn, Letzler aims to delineate the ways in which they require modulation of readers’ attention and, in so doing, provide practical lessons for the information age.

Working in the tradition of cognitive approaches to literature, Letzler makes productive use of recent advances in cognitive science and then extends this tradition considerably with his key concept borrowed from computer programming: the phenomenon of “cruft,” defined as excessive code that “is not technically wrong” but “is unnecessary, inelegant, or too complicated for its own good” (5). In mega-novels, he applies this term to what he calls “unimportant text” (13), “overload” (14), “pointless or incoherent” text (22), “objectively pointless text” (122), and “excess” (passim). Acknowledging the term’s pejorative implications, he tries to square the circle of analyzing the purpose of what he’s labeled in advance as purposeless by adapting Kant’s famous maxim and calling cruft “text that has purposivelessness with purpose” (21). 

Letzler organizes his analysis of cruft in mega-novels with the help of genre criticism because of “the importance genre plays in how we ascribe purpose to narrative” by “specifying to which elements we should and should not pay attention” (19). Thus, his chapters proceed through a taxonomy of novels that incorporate generic conventions of the dictionary, the encyclopedia, life-writing, Menippean satire, episodic narrative, and the epic and allegory. I found some applications of his concept more convincing than others. Exploring as cruft the experimentation of language in Gaddis’s J R in the dictionary chapter led to persuasive insights into how readers must negotiate passages of near-gibberish, as did his discussions of how “substantial specialized information from the sciences, the arts, and history” (63) functions in encyclopedia fiction like Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet and Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Curiously, however, while I especially enjoyed his perceptive discussions of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Gravity’s Rainbow, I failed to see how his theoretical framework had led to those insights beyond simply providing a term to label parts of the novels he defined as excessive. 

Finally, I would have liked to see Letzler step outside his argument and use his impressive knowledge of both science/technology and literature to consider the impact of differences between reading fiction and reading solely to acquire information on the project of applying information theory to literary criticism. He relies heavily on plot to determine what is cruft, for example, but the manifold values of reading novels cannot be reduced simply to collecting information that moves the plot along. Perhaps that’s the source of my discomfort with his ultimate claim that reading mega-novels carries value for readers in helping us learn to sort important from unimportant data in an era of information overload. Maybe it does; but failing to at least acknowledge the many other values of the mega-novel-reading experience left me wanting more from his intriguing approach.  

Lynn Page Whittaker, PhD, Independent Scholar, Alexandria, VA